One of the secrets of Ariel Sharon's political charm is the magical influence over President George Bush that is attributed to the Israeli premier. Sharon managed to register Bush for the Likud Central Committee, and rode their friendship to a sweeping victory in the elections. Together, the two foiled every political plan that threatened to push Israel into concessions or to harm its efforts to defeat the Palestinians. This week it turned out the "road map" was shelved until after the war in Iraq, and most likely has been buried forever, like all the previous initiatives by the State Department and its European partners.
Jerusalem and Washington's coupling looked perfect until the ongoing discussions of the aid package to Israel came along and showed that even the most beautiful friendships have their limits. The Bush administration can be generous at the expense of the Palestinians and is happy to furnish Sharon with political gestures. In any case, Bush doesn't want to get into the sickbed as mediator in the endless dispute over the partition of the country. But when Israel asks for its piece of the American purse, the loving declarations turned into difficult questions and the administration put its bureaucratic mechanisms into slow motion.
The end of the story is still not known. The aid package has yet to be completed and hasn't even been discussed at the highest levels of the administration. Israel has yet to employ all its resources of influence in the American capital. Jerusalem is divided on the matter. The Prime Minister's Office is convinced the outcome will be positive, and Israel will get all the loan guarantees it asked for, $8 billion, and half the defense grant, about $2 billion. Similar assessments are coming from the embassy in Washington.
But other elements in Jerusalem are not so optimistic. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the impression from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice this week that there are many obstacles on the road ahead. In other corridors, there's talk about faulty management of the contacts with the U.S., a chain of failures that began with the failed Phalcon deal with China, through the two special aid packages promised to Israel in the last two years that were never delivered.
In all those cases, Israel went optimistically into the discussions with the U.S. only to be surprised to discover the Americans also have interests and they even prefer their interests to their concern for Israel. Washington is not enthusiastic about financing the IDF war against the Palestinians, refusing to regard it as part of the world war on terrorism. Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron was sent home to revise the defense aid package request, to focus on the costs of preparing for the war in Iraq, and not to cover the costs of the intifada. The explanation was that it would be easier to pass the request through Congress.
On the eve of the Likud primaries, the administration demonstrated its fondness for Sharon by agreeing to receive his bureau chief Dov Weisglass for discussions about the aid package. The prime minister sent the message to the voters he had a magical solution for the economic crisis - a gift from Uncle Sam. He thus buttressed his weak economic flank in the campaign.
After the elections, the mood changed. Weisglass went to Washington with top treasury and defense officials, believing he was going to close the deal. Instead, the Israelis went through a gauntlet of questions and were sent home to do their homework. Now Israel is in a campaign to save the defense aid, and even the loan guarantees.
It is difficult to tell if subordinates feed Sharon overly optimistic reports or his officials believe that his magic touch and a few conversations between Dubi and Condi will make the aid flow. But Sharon did get the message and hurried to hand over the guarantees issue to Netanyahu. If Netanyahu succeeds, the prime minister will claim credit for bringing up the request at his last meeting with Bush. If it fails, the finance minister will take the heat.
And it's only after the war that we'll know if the bargaining over the aid was a simple financial quarrel between a couple, or a hint of Bush's readiness to clash with Sharon on much more sensitive issues.
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